Wow. Pretty much just, wow.
This year culminated into one massive effort this last Sunday as I toed the line at the MO' Cowbell Marathon here in St. Charles, MO. You know the story, you know the struggles, you know the anxiety-ridden ansty-pants I was leading up to this race. I didn't have anything to PROVE really...but I had a lot that I wanted to accomplish, BADLY. I've talked about Boston Qualifier times (mine needs to be 3:05, I've talked about wanting to break 3:10, I've talked about just learning to be satisfied with the result if my effort level is 'everything I have'. You KNOW the story. I know the story. Race day was upon me either way.....
I got to the starting line feeling fairly fresh, but uncertain of what my legs would really have. I think that's how we all feel, but, somehow taper time had made me feel out of touch with the effort level I would need to put out in order to really break through some barriers. I spotted my friends and team mates towards the front of the pack and we 'hugged it out' hard. I lined up with the 7-7:30/mi crews, closed my eyes and bowed my head for the National Anthem and then took a few big deep breaths as the horn sounded.
The first 2-4 miles I was finding a rhythm and choosing what felt best. I wanted a 1:35 half marathon to start (7:15 pace) and sitting behind a few tall runners and 'drafting' off their rhythm landed me right in that range. First 5 splits in 7:12, 7:07, 7:11, 7:07, 7:08.... I started to feel a bit of a relaxed stride and I started to let go of the "I wonder if my legs have anything" and I started to latch onto "I wonder how MUCH my legs have of THIS, and I wonder how long I'll feel this decent". It's a gamble and it's a game of mental trickery. When the body feels good you want to GO... but with 21 miles left that's an insane plan. So I settled in, shook out the arms, and relaxed everything.
Miles 9, 10, 11 were interesting! I saw Jeanne S. and Libby on the side cheering as I started a little climb at 9 before the only real "HILL" on the course, which is most of mile 10 as it climbs up a long outer-road grade. I had spotted a professional looking girl up ahead who was running VERY smooth and even paced behind two guys who were setting her pace, so I moved up and latched onto their group, knowing the hill at 10 was right around the corner. As we turned for the hill the two big guys dropped off and the girl I was following looked around, freaked out a bit, and yelled back to me "Did I miss it?! Did I miss the cutoff for the half??! I think I need to go back!" I bounded up ahead of her and reassured her it was still ahead. I patted my hip as if to say, "C'mon, let's go, stick with me up this hill and I'll get you to the finish line. (she was running the half marathon) She settled in behind and next thing I knew we were all the way up the hill and rolling FAST down the other side. I looked at my Garmin and current pace showed 6:40 so I motioned to her that I needed to back off and save it... but gave the high-five of "go go go! Finish strong!".
I swooped down the huge hill around the corner and split off left onto the packed gravel Katy Trail as the other runners split right to finish the half marathon. My race was just beginning. I saw my Dad at mile 13 and he was shooting some pics but also waiting as planned to give me a handheld bottle filled with water and Perpetuem (by Hammer Nutrition). That bottle was JUST what I needed. My Dad yelled, "1:34, you're right on pace! Let's go!". I was still feeling pretty but I downed that bottle over the next 3 miles as I headed for 16 in. Miles 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 went in 7:00, 6:54, 7:06, 7:05, 7:03.
I was feeling strong but started to work. I could see that I was 2.5 minutes ahead of my 3:10 pace bracelet and I KNEW I had a great shot. I also knew I still had 10 miles left. 10 MILES. I couldn't think about it.. I said outloud to myself in the middle of nowhere, all by myself, "Just get to 20.. you know you can run 4 miles, RELAX.. SAVE something for 20... this is YOUR DAY. GO." I played the surge game over the next 4 miles and kept finding myself running in the 6:50 range before I'd yell at myself to slow down. I'd say, "NOT yet... save it" what seemed like 60 times in those 4 miles.
Miles 17, 18,19, 20 went in 7:00, 7:01, 7:07, 6:49. What? 6:49? Something was happening out there. I was starting to feel the fatigue and I knew I was WORKING, but no matter how gassed I felt at any one point, I was still hitting splits and still rolling along fairly quickly. 20 miles in 2:20...I can do math. I DID the math. I was nearing 4 minutes ahead of 3:10 pace at this point. Do the math right now yourself...... 3:10 minus 4 mintes meant ONE THING.... Boston was within reach. It was at this point that I decided I needed to really go for it. I could have relaxed and settled a bit this last 10k but I was in, I was committed, and I was ready to go waaaaay into the pain cave to try to snag a BQ that all of a sudden was right in my face and possibly within reach.
I could feel the steady energy from that Perpetuem still in my legs but my mechanics were starting to really hurt at this point. Joints, muscles, little things.. it all hurt. I could feel a few spots that were potential cramps welling up every so slightly, but a quick brisk walk past a water table to chug 3 cups helped calm that down a bit. I picked the pace back up and surprisingly STILL wasn't losing any time. Miles 21, 22, 23 went in 7:10, 7:12, 7:09.... this is where I cramped bad last year and lost time. That's ALL I could think about. But something else was happening. I was passing people left and right. I was latching on, pulling away, looking back and they were gone. At mile 23 I said outloud, "You can do this... you can run a 5k ANYDAY.. 5k left...
I hit 24 miles in 2:50. Again, I did the math. Holy COW it was still within reach. 2.2 miles in 15 minutes would be TOUGH to close out a marathon but I knew it was still possible. I was laboring, grunting, wincing, grimacing... race face was in full affect. All at once the day was catching up with my body and my 'engine' really went into the red zone at this point. Everything in me wanted to stop, but MORE than everything in me knew that every second on the clock from this point in mattered. Every stride... I took a couple deep breaths and tried to relax my form. I felt myself speed up a bit...but it HURT. Miles 24, 25 in 7:17, 7:20... the slowest miles of the day so far, but I hit the 1 mi to go mark in 2:58. 1 measley mile stood between me and 3:05... plus the .2 at the end, and let's be real for a second.. that .2 takes TIME. I was starting to tunnel vision a bit.. tingly fingers, mini cramps in the calf...
I kept glancing at my watch and seeing it tick by.. 3:03... 3:04... it slipped past 3:05 as I saw the last turn towards the last 400 meters in sight. I rounded the corner, saw the finishing banner and starting to sprint. Every last shred of what I had was now in play.. my left quad and calf immediately cramped hard, so I compensated and grit my teeth. Then my right hamstring went.. locked up.. I somehow ran through it, saw my Dad.. saw the clock..through a blurred haze I saw 3:06 and knew I had really smashed this one. I hit the finish line and sort of collapsed into some volunteers arms as they helped me walk over to the side. Big hugs from John B. and my Dad as I immediately started to mentally celebrate what had just happened.
The morning was a bit of a blur...but, there was also a new-found clarity to it. I realized that I had more control over my outcome than I was giving my mind and body credit for. I realized that you can't deny the months and months of work that goes into this even when doubt creeps in those last few weeks before race day. I realized that every cycle is going to have small pains, tweeks, freakouts, etc... but it is only when you're able to get to the starting line with a plan, a focus, and a willingness to push to a place you've never been before that great things can happen.
It was a breakthrough day.... but I'm still not done yet.